More than a Matter of Distance: Refugees in Papua New Guinea


Since 1962, military actions and policies implemented by the Indonesian state to secure Irian Jaya as part of the Republic have impelled many West Papuans to flee eastward into Papua New Guinea seeking political asylum. The flight of approximately 9,500 Muyu West Papuans into Papua New Guinea in 1984 and 1985 was also influenced not only by military violence and surveillance but also by feelings of disenfranchisement produced by the state's failed promise of "development." The failure was interpreted as deliberate and categorical neglect.

Policy-makers tend to think that refugee movement within a region requires less cultural adjustment because refugees live with their own people though their dusun (place or homeland) is on the other side of a colonial-imposed boundary. (Harrell-Bond and Voutira, 1992) The Muyu region is located only several days’ walking distance from the former UNHCR camp at East Awin, east of the international border in Papua New Guinea.1 Muyu refugees’ sense of displacement is influenced by their proximity to their dusun.

Muyu Flight and Relocation

The Catholic Pastoral team at Mindiptana documented numerous violent incidences in 1984 and 1985 in the Waropko-Mindiptana area. (Jayapura Diocese, 1998) These events constitute the Muyu people's most recent "memory" of their treatment by the state prior to flight. By mid-1985, established villages in the Muyu area had been deserted, and only a small number of Muyu people remained in Mindiptana. Muyu people's arrival in Western Province increased the population five-fold. After nearly 100 people died of starvation at the Komokpin border camp in 1985, the Papua New Guinea government was compelled to accept intervention from the UNHCR. People who had crossed en masse in 1984 could not be categorized by the technical term "border crosser" because their movement was not temporary or for the purposes of traditional activities (listed as "social contacts and ceremonies including marriage, gardening, hunting, collecting and other land usage, fishing and other usage of waters, and customary border trade"). In July 1986, the Papua New Guinea government signed the Geneva Convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees, with reservations regarding the provision of wage-earning employment, housing, public education, and freedom of movement.

The Papua New Guinea government's new refugee policy included relocating West Papuan refugees from the border camps to a site named Iowara at East Awin, approximately 120 kilometers from the border. This strategy followed UNHCR policy that refugees be relocated from vulnerable border areas before non-relief development assistance is provided. (Preston, 1992) It was, however, a second significant displacement for the Muyu. In 1987, 2,500 Muyu people were relocated to East Awin, but despite the enticement of education, health services, and rations by the UNHCR, and the severance of aid to border camps, approximately 4,000 Muyu people refused to relocate and remain in border camps to this day.

Eleven years later, the Papua New Guinea and Indonesian governments, assisted by UNHCR, offered permissive residency2 or repatriation to West Papuan refugees living at East Awin. While several hundred Muyu people voluntarily repatriated to Irian Jaya in the year 2000, remaining Muyu at East Awin applied for and were granted permissive residency status.

Without faith in particular leaders, Muyu people now suffer anxiety about their fate. They fear punishment for humiliating the Indonesian state in the eyes of the world. They also fear retribution by the West Papuan successionist movement (OPM) because return before merdeka is perceived to be premature--to undermine the project of collective exile. Though they fear returning to Irian Jaya, Muyu people do not think of Iowara as a permanent residence; it is a place of wandering or drifting about, not a place of their own.

Incarceration and Destitution

We are a happy people, quick to rejoice / Because the Muyu river of our homeland is indeed grand / In the forests, there are noisy birds / In the rivers, fish leap from the water / In the forests, there are noisy birds / Where the Roman Catholics fly their flag from Ninati to Kanggup downstream, the Muyu hold that religion dear.

The lyrics of this anthem, recounted at Iowara, define being Muyu in terms of their territory as a Catholic diocese, and of the ecology of their region. In Muyu discourse, roots are important. Muyu people attribute the suffering at East Awin to their loss of dusun:

"Actually it is like we have all died, there is no feeling of being in a place. The body feels weightless. We are drifting. We appear busy enough here, eating and speaking, but we do not feel in a place. Our inner selves have been disturbed. Neither is it true that we are healthy. We are corpses, like dried bones without flesh or blood. But if we can return to the homeland, if there is freedom, our flesh and blood will return. It is as though our life force has been sapped. We don't feel sated. We feel awkward and exist in a constant sense of hostility in our relation with the landholders, and vigilant, guarded; fearing repatriation by the government. In this place we are humiliated; trash, waste. Indeed, Indonesia has already killed [us] in a refined/unseen manner by forcing [us] to flee [our] dusun and homeland."

Displacement has more than one dimension; it represents the loss of particular social places like dusun. Stuart Kirsch (1996) describes Muyu dusun in biographical terms; the places of rockpools, water holes, paths, camping places, orchards, sago stands, swidden gardens: all represent experiences in a person's life. Separation from dusun therefore entails the displacement of memory.

The Absence of Sago

Some Muyu people carried their sago mattocks, used to pound sago pith (a staple food), when they fled across the border into Papua New Guinea in 1984. The sago mattock was valued not only for sentiment's sake, but because it allowed the cultivation of sago and ensured survival. Muyu people refer to themselves as "sago people." In the northern Muyu region, a sago tree is known as om monggop (om means tree and monggop, planted). Because there are very few stands of forest sago left in the area, northern Muyu people know the sago tree mainly as a tree planted by their ancestors and cultivated by successive generations. Every tree constitutes a remanent of olden times and a reminder of the planter; in any one dusun there will be sago trees planted by the current as well as previous generations.

There are no naturally occurring sago stands at Iowara. The separation from sago trees as heritage markers is another aspect of Muyu displacement at Iowara. In 1987, most Muyu people living in the border camps--where they had already lived for four years--refused to shift to East Awin, saying, "Better we remain here and fetch sago and hunt in our own dusun than go there." Even among those who relocated, many resisted planting sago and rejected the seedlings offered by the government. They did not want to think that they might still be at Iowara in 10 years, when the sago would be ready for harvest. Resistance to planting sago was an act of defiance; the Muyu resisted cultivating at Iowara as a longer-term place of residence. They refused to "put down roots" in exile.

Some refugees wanted to plant sago, but claimed that Awin and neighboring Pare landowners prohibited the practice outside the Iowara boundary and discouraged it inside of the boundary. The Muyu believe that special permission is required to plant sago on another person's land because the trees perpetually produce suckers that colonize the area of the initial planting, producing an enduring and ambiguous relationship between the planter and the land. (Schoorl, 1993)

Some Muyu people had planted sago trees at Iowara but the trees' harvest was delayed by the landowners' constant removal of palm leaf for roof thatching. (The removal of the palm leaf slows down the maturity of the sago pith.) Few people sold sago palm leaf at Iowara because the Muyu people who had planted their own sago trees had only enough for their own needs.

Because sago was not available, Muyu people processed cassava to make flour for an unleavened bread which they called baked sago. It was only an imitation of authentic bread made from sago flour, and in spite of the availability of cassava, "The Cassava Song," arranged in the Yonggom language by two Muyu teachers at Iowara, was an indication that appetites remained unsatiated: Every day I am fed up with eating cassava at Iowara, hungry, hungry /We want to return home to eat sago / Those of us here want to return soon to our place / The afternoon bird has called because of that we want to return to our place / Here is not our place of origin, our place of origin is where the sun goes down. For the Muyu, sago cannot be simulated.

Another People's Land

In the absence of sago at Iowara, green banana became the main carbohydrate staple.

Bananas were categorized as a wasteful crop--productivity was high in the first year and then declined rapidly--compared with peanuts and sweet potatoes planted in rotation, or other vegetables that could be planted in old gardens. Over-zealous clearing for banana cultivation produced quarrels among refugee neighbors at Iowara. Farmers who had determined their boundaries but had not yet cleared the entire space often found their farmland seized by their neighbors. One said: "Here, there is no recourse for complaint because people don't respect each other's right over any place. They think like this: I am here temporarily therefore using the forest extravagantly in the short term does not matter."

Constant expansion also meant that people walked longer and longer distances to gather firewood and to tend their gardens. Building materials, such as rattan, hardwood for foundation posts, and nibung palm for flooring and walls, became scarce inside the camp boundary and people were forced to buy these materials from outside landholders.

Many Muyu people had previously relied on subsistence strategies that could not be practiced at Iowara: gathering uncultivated plants (seasonal fruits, berries, nuts, flower buds, palm hearts), or hunting edible insects and small animals (grubs, larvae, ants, spiders, grasshoppers, frogs, fish, prawns, lizards, and birds) as well as wild pig, cassowary, cuscus, iguana, snakes and bats. (Kirsch, 1991) At Iowara, game was quickly hunted to the point of extinction and hunting beyond the boundary required permission from the landowners.

Refugees perceived themselves to be incarcerated at Iowara by landholders' "rules" proscribing their gardening rights, hunting activity, mobility, and trading rights. This perception was reflected in a proverb: "A little excess/superiority provokes the landholder's objection," and an aphorism: "Permission must be sought from the landholder, don't do as you please like you would in your own place." While people at Iowara spoke in the abstract of rules installed by the landholders, they did not elaborate.

Drought conditions and bushfires in 1997 revealed Muyu people's vulnerability in a place where sago cultivation and forest food gathering were restricted. Camps at Iowara were all but abandoned in this period as people followed landowners into the forest beyond the boundary to harvest wild sago. The Muyu people's experiences with drought evoked memories of their abundant dusun in Irian Jaya. Their "own place," recalled as a reliable place, would never allow or require such measures.

The Muyu experience at Iowara, East Awin, was mediated by the proximity of their own dusun, and their dependence on a subsistence livelihood. It was perhaps because their region was so close that Muyu displacement at Iowara was felt poignantly. The absence of sago and dusun, and restrictions on mobility, hunting, and fishing, coupled with the drought at Iowara, evoked nostalgia. They returned because they perceived Iowara as dystopic, while Muyu places of origin were remembered in utopic terms. Theirs, however, was not a whimsical nostalgia. It was about absence and about yearning for their own ancestral dusun and for sago--the things that defined their lives and were meaningful to them. They longed to return to their place of origin--their legitimate place among their own people--in accordance with their discourse of autochthony.

1. At the time of research in 1998 and 1999, Iowara consisted of 17 refugee settlements composed of 3,500 West Papuan people from across Irian Jaya including the north coast and islands, Mamberamo, the Baliem Valley and eastern highlands region toward the border, the Waropko-Mindiptana region in the Middle-Fly border region, and the Morehead border area.

2. Permissive residency is a provisional citizenship, granting refugees rights including free movement, engagement in business activities, employment, enrollment in Papua New Guinea schools and tertiary institutions and access to health facilities. Conditions included not residing in the Indonesian-Papua New Guinea border area, not engaging in political activity, no voting rights and no rights to membership in political parties.

Diana Glazebrook completed a Ph.D. in Anthropology (ANU) in 2001, and has since worked on a development program for the National Museum of East Timor. She is currently working with the Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development Program at the ANU. She can be reached at

For more information:

Visit, a collaborative project between the two universities in the Indonesian province of Papua (Universitas Negeri Papua in Manokwari, Cenderawasih State University in Jayapura) and The Australian National University. Papuaweb has a wide variety of research materials about Papua, including a bibliography of recent publications related to Papua, an Internet library, annotated bibliographies, and a digital library.

References and further reading

Allen, B.J. et al. (1993). Agricultural systems of Papua New Guinea Working Paper No. 4. Canberra: Department of Human Geography, Research School of Pacific Studies, The Australian National University.

Glazebrook, D. (2001a). Dwelling in exile, perceiving return: West Papuan refugees from Irian Jaya living at East Awin in Western Province, Papua New Guinea. Ph.D. thesis, The Australian National University.

Glazebrook, D. (2001b). Subsistence efforts of West Papuans living at East Awin relocation site in Western Province. In Food Security for Papua New Guinea (Proceedings of the Papua New Guinea Food and Nutrition 2000 Conference). ACIAR Proceedings No. 99. Bourke, R.M., Allen, M.G & Salisbury, J.G., Eds. Pp. 81-87.

Harrell-Bond, B.E & Voutira, E. (1992). Anthropology and the study of refugees. Anthropology Today 8:4, pp 6-10.

Jayapura Diocese Office for Justice and Peace. (1998). Situational report on returnees from Papua New Guinea to Irian Jaya dealing in particular with returnees to the Waropko-Mindiptanah area. Jayapura.

Kirsch, S. (1991). The Yonggom of New Guinea: An Ethnography of Sorcery, Ritual and Magic. Ph.D. thesis, University of Pennsylvania.

Kirsch, S. (1996). Refugees and Representations: Politics, Critical Discourse and Ethnography along the New Guinea Border. In Mainstream(s) and Margins: Cultural Politics in the 90s. Morgan, M. & Leggett, S., Eds. Conneticut: Greenwood Press. Pp.222-236.

Manning, C. & Rumbiak, M. (1989). Economic Development, Migrant Labour and Indigenous Welfare in Irian Jaya 1970-84. The Australian National University National Centre for Development Studies Pacific Research Monograph no. 20.

Preston, R. (1992). Refugees in Papua New Guinea: Government Responses and Assistance, 1984-1988. International Migration Review 3:26, pp 843-876.

Schoorl, J.W. (1993). Culture and change among the Muyu. Leiden: KITLV Press.

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